Giacometti started making decorative objects in 1929, certainly at the beginning for financial reasons, while continuing his work as a sculptor. His first commission, to redecorate the office of the banker Pierre David-Weill, came to him through the intermediary of the painter André Masson. He designed a low relief in bronze that was very similar to the surrealist sculptures he was making at the time and a pair of canine-featured fire dogs. The following year he designed a second bas-relief, this time for one of the walls in the new apartment of Georges-Henri Rivière.
However, Giacometti’s more serious involvement with the decorative arts grew out of his encounter with Jean-Michel Frank, with whom he worked regularly throughout the 1930s. More than a simple working relationship, the men developed a genuine friendship that ended only with Frank’s death in March 1941. At the time, Frank was one of the most influential decorators in Paris, with artists and architects such as Salvador Dalí, Christian Bérard, Paul Rodocanachi and Emilio Terry all in his orbit.
He designed interiors for members of the Parisian elite but also for a number of the big luxury firms. His work deeply challenged the prevailing codes of decoration, especially in the radical minimalism of his landmark design for the de Noailles townhouse in Avenue de New York.
Frank began his career as an interior decorator in the early 1920s but did not work on a truly professional basis until 1930, when he became artistic director for Chanaux et Compagnie. He assembled a full-fledged design team whose members, in the words of Jean Cocteau, ‘voluntarily forgot their egos and collaborated within the ensemble without trying to steal the spotlight’ – yet without sacrificing their personalities either. Together, they created an original aesthetic based on an extreme simplicity of forms and limited colours, while regularly finding inspiration in the past.
In March 1935 Frank opened a shop at 140 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré in Paris. The event was captured by photographer François Kollar (p.35). His pictures show Frank and his associate, the cabinet-maker Adolphe Chanaux surrounded by their collaborators: Bérard, Terry, Rodocanachi and Giacometti, but also his brother Diego, who assisted Alberto on the execution of his objects and would also design some of the models produced by Frank. From the outset, in the 1930s, Frank had an international clientele. Giacometti’s pieces were very popular, notably with interior decorators such as Syrie Maugham in England and the American Frances Elkins.
They featured regularly in the specialist press of the day, notably in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. For two major commissions he received in 1938–9, one for the New York apartment of Nelson Rockefeller and another to decorate the villa of a rich Argentinean couple, Jorge and Matilde Born, Frank used a good number of decorative elements already designed by Giacometti (table lamp, floor lamps, sconces, vases), but also ordered several new pieces. The sculptor occupied a privileged position among Frank’s collaborators: no project was complete without at least one of his pieces. In all, he designed some one hundred pieces for the famous decorator.
A letter shows Frank humorously encouraging his friend to send him some new designs: ‘PS.: Everyone who comes here or to the studio swoons over your work. That’s the only thing they like. If you make more models, perhaps I’ll be able to buy myself a suit. Don’t forget me = lamps, vases, and when will there be furniture? Tables, chairs, armchairs, beds, sofas, etc.?’
Giacometti was in fact already famous for his surrealist sculptures, but he never thought of the decorative arts as minor and continued to provide new objects and produce the commissions he was given. In a letter to his gallerist Pierre Matisse dated 1948, Giacometti remembers his brother’s support and the importance he attached to the decorative arts: ‘I am able to make objects only because Diego works very well and deals with all aspects of casting, etc., but objects interest me hardly any less than sculpture, and there is a point at which the two touch.’
On several occasions his experiments in one field resonated in another so much so that it is impossible to say whether it was the decorative arts that influenced his practice as a sculptor or vice versa. In 1936, for example, Giacometti made Head of Isabel (The Egyptian) (Tête d’Isabel (L’Egyptienne)) in the art deco style (p.188), which was also a feature of Frank’s interior designs. Likewise, the faceting of the edges of one of his vases c.1934 recalls the surfaces of his sculpture Cube 1933–4 which has similar forms. In Table 1933, Giacometti seems to be encouraging a synthesis of the arts by creating a composite sculpture made up of numerous decorative elements placed on a table.
The artist was particularly interested in non-European arts and began taking forms from African art in the mid-1920s. His Spoon Woman (Femme cuillière) 1927 (p.140–1) was probably inspired by a spoon made by the Dan people from the Ivory Coast, transposing a ritual object into sculpture. In the same way, Giacometti found objects in the arts of the past that he could use to compose his decorative objects. For example, the lamp called The Egyptian (L’Egyptienne) recalls one of the oil lamps discovered in the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. Giacometti simplified and pared-down the original, removing every trace of its plant motif. His ‘Large Leaf’ floor lamp borrows the detail from a Polynesian offering-bearer that Giacometti may have seen at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.
However, such explicit references are fairly rare in his work; Giacometti preferred to allude to works from the past rather than literally quote them. The pieces he created are like objects he exhumed from imaginary civilisations. The appearance of the objects is close to that of his sculptures.Despite the apparent symmetry, the surfaces are in fact uneven, scratched, even damaged. The modelling is irregular. Made, like his sculptures, mainly in plaster and bronze, what Giacometti called his ‘utilitarian objects’ are nevertheless unique pieces of craftsmanship. Usually, the plaster is left in its original white, which went perfectly with the restrained aesthetic of Frank’s interiors. While more than half of Giacometti’s decorative work was lighting (floor lamps, lamps, sconces, chandeliers), plus a handful of bowls and vases, he also tried his hand at making items of furniture such as mantelpieces, fire dogs, door-knobs, mirrors, pedestal tables and other decorative accessories. Apart from Frank, he also accepted a number of private commissions, making a few pieces of jewellery and buttons for Elsa Schiaparelli and creating a unique plaster wall decoration (1934, now lost) for Lise Deharme, a friend of André Breton’s.
The Second World War, and Frank’s death, halted this production until Giacometti returned to Paris in September 1945 and resumed the work with Diego, whom he entrusted with managing editions of several models he had created for Frank. These were distributed in France until the late 1950s through the decorator Jacques Adnet, Director of the Compagnie des Arts Français. Up to the early 1950s the artist also continued to make new models now and again when asked by friends such as the publisher Tériade and his gallerist Aimé Maeght, and sometimes even integrated motifs from his sculptures into these pieces. For the publisher Louis Broder he combined in a single chandelier the emblematic figure of the walking man with that of a standing woman raising her arms, as in the first version of The Cage 1950. The same kind of figurine, doubled, was used in the Lamp with Two Figures (Lampe-coupe aux deux figures) 1949–50. In 1952 Giacometti wrote to Pierre Matisse, who was the exclusive distributor of his works in the American market, ‘I have modelled a bowl that is by the far the best thing I’ve done in this field.’